During my time at the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, I have had the pleasure of reading a variety of texts written by or about Margaret Sanger. Often, the most surprising aspect of reading these texts is the underlying ideology that is revealed. Louis Althusser teaches us that an ideology is a way of thinking that permeates our society so completely, that it simply becomes “the way it is.” By championing for access to birth control, Sanger certainly challenged the ideology that having more children than one can handle is an inevitable part of life. However, looking back from our contemporary vantage point, it is clear that Sanger was at the very beginning of a fight against multiple harmful ideologies, some of which persisted even after Sanger’s death.
One of these ideologies is revealed in the language that Sanger and her contemporaries use to discuss birth control and marriage: the assumption that a woman must submit to her husband’s sexual desires. This topic is rarely discussed in a straightforward manner, but some documents attempt to grapple with it in some form. For example, Sanger “and other early advocates made it clear that men could not be trusted when it came to contraception and were, generally, unwilling to sacrifice any degree of pleasure.” In fact, in a pamphlet entitled Dutch Methods of Birth Control, Sanger even goes as far as to publish a description by a Dutch writer about how to slip a condom on to one’s drunk husband in the event that one is forced to have sex with him:
When the husband is drunk, and his wife, fearing that a miserable child will be born, has not other preventative at hand, she can perhaps apply the French Letter as if caressing him, when he does not know what he is doing. At all events, she should always take care that one or two French Letters be ready for use.
To a contemporary reader, the implications of this passage can be alarming, as there seems to be no concept of consent. After my initial reading of this passage, it looked as though Sanger and her contemporaries focused on helping women gain agency over their bodies because they saw this approach as being more fruitful than holding men accountable for their actions. To some extent, women felt the need to arm themselves against their husbands. To better understand this, I looked into the etymology of consent on the Oxford English Dictionary. The first reference to sexual consent appears in the early 1800s, with regards to the age of consent, or the age at which people can agree to marriage and sexual intercourse. What is striking about this discovery is the way in which consent was inherently linked to marriage. Thus, the ideology that marriage was a 24/7 consent pass does not come as a surprise.
In the United States, marital rape was exempted from rape laws until the mid-1970s because of the belief that men were entitled to have sex with their wives whenever they wanted. This marital rape exemption was not eradicated from every state until 1993. To this day, a number of states have more lenient penalties for marital rape.
With this in mind, we can see that Sanger was battling centuries of patriarchal ideology when she said that “no woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” Although the language of sexual consent did not exist in Sanger’s time as it does now, Sanger certainly broached the topic in her own way. She often spoke of the importance of open communication in order to maintain a healthy and happy marriage, especially when it came to sex. In “What Margaret Sanger Thinks About Marriage,” she writes:
For marriage built on the shifting sands of fear, shame and ignorance can never lead to happiness, yet if contracted with a frank recognition of the central importance of the beauty of sex in life, alike in its physiological, psychological and spiritual aspects, happiness becomes a glowing possibility. This is a buried treasure to be unearthed by true lovers. It may be imbedded in the rich soil of mutual respect and consideration.
Thus, although Sanger did not talk about consent in the same way that we do now, she preached the importance of mutual respect and understanding, which are ultimately the foundation for consent as we understand it today.
Paired with Sanger’s insistence in a woman’s right to her own body, this emphasis on healthy relationships allowed us to reach a point where yes means yes and no means no, regardless of the circumstances.
- Margaret Sanger, “A Parents’ Problem or Woman’s?,” March 1919
- Margaret Sanger, “Introduction to Dutch Methods of Birth Control,” Mar./Apr. 1915.
- Margaret Sanger, “What Margaret Sanger Thinks About Marriage,” Mar. 1928.
- Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, “The Lowly Condom–Sanger’s Missed Opportunity?,” 1997
- Jill Elaine Hasday, “Contest and Consent: A Legal History of Marital Rape,” Oct. 2000.
- Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 1970.